Cinema, citizenship and the promise of the internet: a personal view from the Third World

Piracy is typically portrayed as the vice of only those who wish to steal media for the sake of self-indulgent entertainment. But 'file sharing' is also, for some, the only means of gaining access to educational material or information censored by oppressive governments, let alone revolutionary inspiration

Salik Shah
21 February 2012

“Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”–David Foster Wallace, 2005

I have never been to Britain or the United States of America. I was born in a small village in Terai, in the southern plains in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal near the border with India. In 1816, the forces of the British East India Company defeated the Gurkha army but left the country as a sovereign nation. Technically, I can’t claim to be a citizen of the Commonwealth or a subject of Her Majesty the Queen as my girlfriend’s grandfather could, being part of the British Gurkha Army. But then what makes one British? Or what, for that matter, makes one Indian or American? I write in English, I have my own picture of Britain, and I love it. At the same time, my influences have also been largely American, and to some extent, other European countries. I inherited the culture of the north Indian Gangetic plains by birth, but happened to be a Nepali citizen by virtue of location.

Free movement 

It’s complicated really, the question of my identity. But there’s a compromise that I’ve reached: as an artist, my temperament is European, but my outlook as an individual is uniquely American. The personality that best embodies this dichotomy to me is Orson Welles, the great American director who spent the last decades of his life living and working mostly in Europe. European directors like F.W. Murnau, Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog, on the other hand, have travelled in the opposite direction across the Atlantic. So have hundreds of other artists and workers in recent times, including Jonathan Ive, the Briton who along with Steve Jobs, brought Apple back into prominence in the technology world. There was a time, before the rise of the Internet, when the impact of such migrations in the fields of art and culture was very slow and largely contained by the traditional media. Now, however, with large-scale migration and the rise of social media and peer-to-peer technology, it is no longer possible to control the extent to which cultural transactions have spread into the public consciousness.  

“I like living on this side of the Atlantic very much. And I like living in America too. I am not a refugee, either politically or emotionally from my country. Neither am I nationalistically inclined, as I hate that in anybody. I hate that [sic]. I really believe that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I am very happy in America but it happens America is not as happy with me as I am with it,” Welles told Parkinson in 1974. Jingoism doesn’t take the human race ahead—I can certainly tell you that from my experience in my country of origin—Nepal— and my country in exile—India. When I heard Welles’ interview, which was broadcast on the BBC fourteen years before I was even born, I identified with it immediately. With great patience, I had downloaded the interview from a file-sharing website. The Orson Welles Sketchbook, produced by the BBC in 1955, and his 1982 interview with Leslie Megahey for Arena (last repeated in 1995 on BBC2) are a treasure trove for any film historian or enthusiast. I wasn’t there when these interviews took place and certainly wasn’t there when Welles was struggling to make his films, but now I have access to his films, his interviews, and his books. I could study him continually at home and in various cities, dividing my time between my day job and watching his work, and all because a serious community of cinephiles taped those broadcasts and shared them with people like me. Think about it: if it were not for torrent trackers and numerous file-sharing hosts, the way our world is, 99% of the film audience would have little or no access to what remains available of the genius of Orson Welles. Without them, we would have to give in to the 1% of the ‘film’ people at the top who control the distribution of these films.

The internet has played a crucial role in my life and countless others of my generation all over the world. So when US legislators propose a bill like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or Protect IP (PIPA) proposing to destroy the very foundations of the new-age knowledge centres of our generation I have to say something. In their attempt to prevent piracy these acts will dismantle the very medium that enables communication and the free exchange of ideas. The proponents of these acts want us to believe that piracy is an evil thing. The younger generation of the world knows very well that piracy is a necessary evil that enables revolutionary online publications like Wikileaks to perform their crucial role for democracy. They know that we can no longer trust politicians who want to control information, who want to control our lives, and worse, dictate the future of mankind.

The evolution of cinema

Take the issue of the piracy of films. The main line of argument against piracy in Hollywood and elsewhere is: ‘We need to recover the money we put into these films or else your favourite directors will not be able to make more films.’ Sorry, I don’t subscribe to this preposterous belief. Despite the threat of piracy, Hollywood is still putting more and more money into films. It doesn’t make business sense, does it? Four arguments can be made against their assertion that piracy is bad for the film industry (I’ll come to the music industry later). 

(a.) The film industry never allowed my favourite filmmakers to make the kind of films they wanted to make, except rarely by divine providence, for which honestly speaking, you shouldn’t and cannot claim any credit. This line of argument might look like an exaggeration, but the insiders will tell you that it’s not: ‘Luck, chance and superstition’ are the secret religion of the film fraternity. 

(b.) Most of the filmmakers I admire have been able to remain independent, making their best films outside the industry. Some have faced great humiliation and censorship. They turned to non-traditional sources of funding only after being deprived of support from the so-called industry. 

(c.) The sole purpose of films is not to make money. Welles believed that too many people entered the film industry purely for the sake of the potential status and wealth. Once a work of art reaches the public domain however, the artist, the writer, the producer or the director can no longer control its consumption, distribution or interpretation. They are at the mercy of their audience.

(d.) We can’t go back to the old and unyielding models of film distribution. The world has changed. We simply cannot allow film authorities or distributors to control creative expression because a flawed system, which is money-and-fame driven, will not care about the more serious, unsexy art of cinema. They don’t care about films; let’s face it, only power and profit. A case in point: Touch Of Evil (1958) - the most glorious film noir with the best opening shot of a border crossing ever - was released as a B-movie in US theatres. Several recent Indian films like Panch (2003), Khargosh (2009) and Gandu (2010) have not been released in our theatres, and perhaps never will be. 

In his important book Why Artists Are Poor? Hans Abbing wrote, “In the case of films, it is possible that in one hundred years Herzog may be better remembered and more honoured than Spielberg. But even then, it is unlikely that over that period of time, his movies would have earned more money than Spielberg’s... ”

Abbing writes that in the case of the fine arts, “giving to the arts often follows from conventions and is embedded in rituals. Because the arts are fostered by the power of conventions and rituals, they are not as vulnerable as they sometimes appear to be. Society gives to the art and art ‘takes’ from society… In the long run, artworks with much aesthetic value can earn artists’ high symbolic rewards as well as market income. Pierre Bourdieu observed that publishers of serious literature and dealers of avant-garde visual art are less interested in immediate returns than their ‘lower’-end colleagues are. They make long-term investments. And when, perhaps decades later, it turns out that they were instrumental in launching important artists, they and the artists may be rewarded with everlasting recognition, fame and money.” It is about time that people understood the fundamental economics of film as an art form before deciding to become a patron of film culture.

It is still too early to decide whether piracy is a good or bad thing for the evolution of cinema. It was not until I had discarded my school textbooks and had completely stopped watching television that I turned to the internet, which was slowly penetrating Kathmandu valley, and stumbled into the works of Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman. Glamour and nonsensical romances of B/Hollywood left me with the misleading impression that cinema was not suited for serious expression. Films were anything but an art form to me until I discovered the master filmmakers—and I know the same is true for many people of my generation. These great works of art are, for various legal, political and industrial reasons, still beyond the reach of many people.

In the case of the music industry, Mick Jagger told the BBC that “we’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and now we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things—assuming you’ve got any money.” He was quite “relaxed” [sic] about it. “But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records. But I have a take on that—people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone! Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone. So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25-year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.”

This brings me to a sad development at the BBC Trust, an invaluable source of information, which is now facing severe cuts in spending. I grew up listening to the BBC radio services—and later, at some point in 2005, I started recording radio broadcasts for my own reference. I had to record them because I could not get access to them online: mainly because of their schedule and my location. These days I can get full access to programmes by the BBC like ‘The Century Speaks’ by downloading the programme from a file-sharing website. As I listen to this important 19-part documentary series compiled by Alan Ingram about ‘life in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire during the past 100 years through the eyes of the people who lived there’, I am slowly beginning to understand how things really ‘change’ with time. For the first time in my adult life, the term ‘change’ implies something much more than just an idea.

Piracy has gained a new meaning for me; it has become synonymous with freedom. Without piracy, I’d be lost and deprived of my basic right to information and education as an individual. Where and how would people be able to watch films like Gandu or read books like The Satanic Verses, especially in countries where the internet is heavily censored and books are banned? And what will happen to the culture of cinema? Studying filmmaking requires a handsome capital in order to be able to collect these films to watch. I still remember my futile hunt for Guru Dutt’s Pyasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) in 2006, for several months I searched every video and film store in Kathmandu. Back in those days, it was rare to find torrent trackers of Asian movies on the Internet. You could rarely find download links for books on cinema either. These books were too expensive to buy and more than often, were unavailable in any of the major public libraries in my country. Every Saturday, the national television network would screen mainstream Hindi movies from across the border, but never any other types of film—it is particularly because of this that the state of cinema in Nepal is pathetic.

Can we stop piracy?

No, you cannot stop ‘piracy’, especially if by piracy you simply mean ‘stealing’ online material. But what we can do, and should, is pursue more innovation and market reform in order to encourage a new kind of responsibility and awareness among people who download material. We all know that stealing is a bad thing because it’s not socially acceptable behaviour. We must understand that for such a broad agreement to evolve in the case of piracy, the world has to be far better organized and far more open than it is today. After all we live a society where Robin Hood and Chulbul Pandey are still celebrated. 

For now, there is no alternative to piracy for accessing important resources, especially in the third world countries. For instance, if it were not for pirated copies of Windows OS, I don’t think India or China could have become the technological powerhouses they are becoming today. More than 90% of the current manpower in third world countries have learnt the basics of computer literacy on pirated software. These people can’t afford expensive education, or the original software they need.

The world has changed so much in the last decade. You can no longer have isolated events. What happens in China affects the United States and what happens in the United States affects the rest of the world. Globally, we are moving towards a more democratic society—at least on the Internet. Today we have the power to choose what we want to watch, read or listen to.

At a time when the world’s politicians and advertisers have become so savvy at manipulating people, it is important for us to dwell on and discuss the meaning of citizenship and our role in this new, wired, world. One of the truly great minds of our recent times, David Foster Wallace, spoke against the commercialization of human emotions and asked us to think very hard about the nature of our day-to-day communication with each other, especially in America.

“American cultural and economic systems that work very well in terms of selling people products and keeping the economy thriving, but do not work as well when it comes to educating children or helping each other know how to live and to be happy,” David Foster Wallace said in an interview in 2003, “[The] paradox, I think, of what it is to be a halfway intelligent American right now, and probably also a western European, is that there are things we know that are right, and good, and probably would be better for us to do, but constantly it’s so much funnier and nicer to go and do something else.  ‘Who cares?  And it’s all bullshit anyway. ’One of the things this causes is tension and unhappiness in people… Emotionally, spiritually, in terms of citizenship, in terms of feeling like a meaningful part even of this country—forget the world—I’m sure the US Government’s sort of arrogance and disdain for the rest of the world is unpleasant.  But, it’s also a natural extension of certain cultural messages we send ourselves about ourselves that work very well in some ways and that make us very rich and very powerful.  It’s all… complicated.”

If you take away the freedom from the internet, what would you replace it with? Where would you document the opposing voices of concerned citizens? Universities?  Libraries? These institutions are just like any other, and have the power to screen individuals for financial, legal, political or regulatory reasons. There is also geographical constraint, of course. If search engines like Google or youtube are censored, the majority who wish to raise serious questions about the state of the United States, or any other country, will no longer have a stage to freely discuss issues. There will no longer be a platform on which to express dissent if blogs are to be censored. And those who try to control the flow of ideas and information, aided by modern technology, would have the ability to wage wars in the world in the name of protecting us from terrorism. Is the new generation of American citizens well aware of the perils of the inherent contradictions and complications of their nation? How many of us do truly understand the significance of Harold Pinter?

In 1971, one English dreamer wrote these famous lines:

Imagine there's no countries/ It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too
Imagine all the people/ Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer/But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us/And the world will be as one

For three decades following the assassination of John Lennon, we were led to believe that his vision of the world was too good to come true. His ‘anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic’ world was unattainable or so we thought. But we were wrong. For the first time in the world’s history, a vast majority of the world population is united in their worldview irrespective of their social or geographical conditions. We must not let the politicians and powerful institutions keep us separated in the name of language, culture or security and protection. We must rise against what Welles called ‘officialdom’, if we truly want to live a life of dignity and exercise our basic right to freedom. The absurdity of the current situation would not have been lost on Orson Welles or David Foster Wallace: at a time when we should be fighting to free internet from all kind of censorship, it is sad to see the representatives of the people trying to act against our very interest. They should let the internet be what it is: let it innovate, self-regulate and evolve without any interference. 

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” —David Foster Wallace, 2005

America, when will you listen to your conscience? 

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